Dining out is an illusion that the fantasists behind Vina Enoteca in Palo Alto have mastered. Once you’re settled at one of the al fresco tables, you’d never guess that the Stanford Shopping Center is just one busy, buzzing block away. A plot of flowering lavender shrubs sways in the breeze directly across the courtyard square.

Built in the late 1800s, the Stanford Barn lounges lazily at the edge of the property. During the day, it houses a more informal panini palace called Tootsie’s. The setting is like an uncomplicated foreign film that transports you to a desirable place where love and connection sit side by side. It’s an upscale Italian bistro where the word “indulgence” punctuates every item on the menu.

The 29 pages of wine and spirits to choose from suits the name (an enoteca is a wine library) and the already intoxicating atmosphere. Of course, the Italian wines, both red and white, come first on the roll call. They arrive in California, well-traveled, from Umbria, Friuli, Toscana and even Sicilia. While the whites or bianchi range from $45 to $105, you can spend twice as much on the more extensive list of reds. On the first truly hot summer afternoon this year in the South Bay, we tried a chilly glass of J. Lassalle Cachet d’Or champagne ($20). But it wasn’t just the sun’s energy that called for those refreshing bubbles. Super-powered by calabrian chili, the peppered broth ladled over the cozze ($13)—Prince Edward Island mussels—was just as fiery (and delicious). We mopped it all up with a basket of bread.

At lunch, you can order six kinds of pizza that are sized to share for two. From the classic Margherita ($14) to the Puttanesca ($18) to the Impossible ($18). In addition to the Impossible Burger, Vina Enoteca serves a pizza topped with sun-dried tomatoes, fennel, braised greens and plant-based “meat” created by the Redwood City-based Impossible Foods. Here it is spiced like an Italian sausage.

As for vegetables appearing in their natural state, try the splendid roasted beet salad (barbabietola mista arrostita, $13). The kitchen dresses two varieties of beet in a lemony vinaigrette, tops them with watercress and then finishes the dish with a generous scoop of fresh ricotta. One particular forkful of beet with that creamy white cheese was the best bite of the entire meal.

We ordered two pasta dishes for our entrées—spaghetti cacio e pepe ($15) and orzo e gamberetti ($20). This version of spaghetti with cheese and pepper landed on the cacio side of the recipe—macaroni and cheese without the macaroni. This isn’t a complaint. Of all the items we ordered, the spaghetti disappeared faster than anything else. The circumference of the frico, or cheese crisp, that crowned the pasta is comparable to that of a small frisbee, but likely saltier on the tongue.

Before you place an order of orzo with grilled shrimp ($20), be sure to ask if they’re out of orzo. In my case, they were and substituted it with a grain that looked and tasted like a chewy oatmeal. When I asked the waiter about it, he went back to the kitchen and later confirmed that it wasn’t orzo and kindly struck it from our tab. Even with the correct pasta, though, the shrimp was overcooked (dry) and under-spiced (bland). I made the age-old mistake of longing for the campanelle beet pasta with
a carrot puree ($15) and then deferred to the waiter’s suggestion. Next time, that carrot top pesto with walnuts will be mine.

I disregarded my instinct a second time when I ignored the flavors of house-made sorbetto or gelato ($9) in favor of the more adventurous-sounding tiramisu sundae ($11). A tiny scoop of coffee mascarpone gelato showed up in little metal bowl. The ladyfingers are more accurately described as a ruffian’s knuckles. There was one round, hardened cookie broken in two. The dessert didn’t evoke a tiramisu in any sense of that luxurious word.

Did gamberetti burned to black or an underwhelming sundae dusted with too much cocoa powder ruin the mood? No way, Giuseppe. If I could sit on that patio every afternoon toward dusk and stare at the burgeoning stars, I would. The wait staff, like the scent of lavender in full bloom, is there to display their charms. At the end of the meal, you stand up and reluctantly walk away thinking, “Viva Italia! Viva Vina Enoteca!”

Vina Enoteca
700 Welch Road, Suite 110, Palo Alto\